What's in a name?

Based on Matthew 16.13-20

Did you ever play that game as a child, where someone whispers a sentence into your ear, and then you whisper it to the next person, who whispers it to the next person and so on?

Until you get to the last person who must say the sentence aloud?

By the time you get to that last person, the sentence is often so convoluted, it’s comical.

You see, even in just that short time, that message that goes through all the different people sometimes ends up indecipherable.

That’s because we interject what we think we hear; what sounds right to us.

All we’re doing is trying to repeat what we hear.

And sometimes, we don’t question what it was that we’ve heard, and so we repeat that.

Hearing vs. Listening

See, in life, we can hear and we can listen.

But there’s a difference between hearing and listening, isn't there?

Hearing is just that: There’s a sound, and we recognize that we’ve heard it.

Hearing is passive. It just happens without little thought.

But listening is active.

It is anticipating that sound and then contemplating and understanding what has been said.

The kids that pass the message on down the line are simply repeating what they think they hear.

They are not processing or trying to understand what has been said.

So today I’d like to talk about the difference between hearing and listening when we’re talking about who Jesus Christ is.

Because Jesus asks the disciples a very important question in our reading today in Matthew 16, and we need to be able to answer this question too:

“Who do you say that I am?”

What’s in a name?

Who do we say Jesus is?

I’ll give you a hint: Jesus’s name says it all.

Today, we’ve translated the name Jesus, and it commonly means “to rescue” or “to deliver.”

So if we can remember that Jesus means “rescue” or “deliver,” then we have a pretty good start in knowing why Jesus came.

To be the messiah — our savior.

In Matthew 1.21, before Jesus’s birth, an angel instructs Joseph to call his son Jesus.

“You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Hear that? “…he will save us. He is our savior.

So we know Jesus’s name was a heavenly command.

And we also know the angel probably wasn’t speaking in the King James English…

So the Hebrew root for the name Jesus would have been Yehoshua which is akin to our Joshua.

But by Jesus’s day, people were speaking Aramaic, not Hebrew, which didn’t have the same alphabet to draw from.

And so Yehoshua became Yeshua.

Of course, by the time any of this was being written down, it was translated to Greek, and we have now Iēsous.

With an I.

And, of course, from Greek, we went to Latin, and the name was Jesu. Still didn’t pronounce that J…

Even in early King James, that “I” or “Y” sound remained.

It wasn’t until the 17th Century English translation that the “I” sound shifted to a “J” sound.

And now we know our savior’s name to be Jesus.

It’s all the same name, but it makes me wonder what he’s called in heaven.

Is it Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Old English or Modern English?

You may, at this point, be rolling your eyes and thinking “What does any of this matter?”

It matters because of the question that we’re asking here today:

“Who do you say that I am?”

Clearly, the disciples understood the meaning of Jesus’s name.

Back then, your name had a meaning.

So when people heard the name Yehoshua, it was the same as hearing the word rescuer or deliverer.

Today, our names have meanings, but for most, we wouldn’t know what they were unless we googled them.

Out names don’t really define who we are, do they?

See, if your name brought with it a instant connotation to what it meant, we might know something about that person based on their name.

My name, Christopher, maybe ironically, means Christ Bearer…

But when people say my name, they probably aren’t thinking that.

Do you know or remember what your name means?

Caesarea Philippi

In our reading today in Matthew 16, Jesus asks the disciples this question.

Jesus and the disciples are in Caesarea Phillipi, which is far northeast of Jerusalem in Syria.

Remember last week we were way up in Tyre and Sidon, way up at the border, and now we’ve moved west across the Sea of Galilee into another Roman-occupied area, Caesarea Phillipi.

Again, not a lot of Jews here. Lots of Gentiles — others….

And these others worship the Greek mythological god Pan.

You know, with the goat legs and the reed flute.

And Jesus turns to his disciples and asks that question:

Verse 13: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

And, just like that kids game that we opened this message with, where everyone whispers something into the next person’s ear, the disciples answer in Verse 14:

“Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

In other words, they tell Jesus that people are calling him a prophet.

The people don’t know yet that Jesus isn’t just a guy who performs miracles, and they aren’t ready to commit their lives to following him as the son of God.

And with that out there, Jesus asks the disciples this: “Who do you say that I am?”

And Peter is quick to answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Peter’s confession of faith

Peter knew more.

And Peter — whose name is Simon or Simon Peter — is not only confident in his answer, he is bold.


Look at the text: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

In other words, he responds that Jesus is the savior whom God has sent.

Not a prophet, but the messiah! The Son of God!

This is a confession of faith, and that’s important because if you cannot confess this, than you are no different from the unsaved people who think Jesus is only a prophet.

And people don’t give their lives to a prophet because the prophet is not the ultimate messiah.

In other words, those who do not confess Jesus as Lord because their hearts are not open or their culture and peers tell them something different, they are not saved.

The people are hearing that long line of whispering in their ears, but by the time it gets to them, it is greatly contorted — despite what they can see with their own eyes.

We have to believe, like Peter did — BOLDLY — that Jesus is Lord.

The apostles have seen what Jesus has done.

But Jesus has not revealed himself, only as Son of Man.

I can tell you who Jesus is.

But, like Peter, we also have to let God reveal who Jesus is to us.

We do that through faith.

And then we confess it.

We say it in the Apostle’s Creed:

“I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord…”

Creed means Believe.

So when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ — Messiah — it’s not because Jesus told him or he is believing what he is hearing from everyone else;

it’s because Peter is listening to God.

And Jesus is so happy about this.

Verse 17, Jesus says to Peter:

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

Hear that?

Jesus didn’t tell Peter; God did.

Peter has been listening.

Remember, at the time, it wasn’t like today, where we go to church and learn that Jesus is the Messiah, is the Son of God, and is God.

Jesus was letting people come up with all that on their own, and, like with Peter, with God’s help.

Today, we maybe take that for granted because of what we’ve heard.

But if we’re listening to God, it will be more than words that have been passed down the line of person to person;

it will be a revelation to us, and we will boldly proclaim Jesus as Lord!

Do you see the difference between hearing and listening?

Then God can use you…

So great, we have Peter’s confession or declaration that Jesus is Lord, now what?

Let’s listen to Jesus, Verse 18:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Peter’s name means “rock,” just as Jesus’s name means “deliverer,” just like my name, Christopher, means “Christ bearer.”

Jesus takes Peter’s name and puts more than just a symbolic meaning to it; he makes it literal, concrete.

Jesus is giving Peter a charge.

He is being ordained, and Peter will go out and build the body — Christ’s church — upon this foundation.

And no one — not even the gates of Hades — will prevail against it.

Hades. That’s interesting, isn’t it?

We don’t really use that term biblically, do we?

Why is that?

We think it’s the same as the word hell, don’t we.

But Jesus is doing something cool here.

Remember where they are?

They are in Caesarea Philippi.

In the Roman Empire.

This town was renamed from “Paneas” — named after that half-goat god Pan, who plays the flute.

Remember where we are!

This town has shrines to Pan.

This is a Hellenistic — Greek-influenced — place where Jews don’t live.

And so Jesus is using the clever vernacular to make a point.

Whatever people believe, none of it — no matter where they are — can ever prevail against Jesus or Jesus’s believers.

So two important things happen here with Jesus’s response:

When you confess Jesus as Lord, that’s when God can and will use you; and

When you confess Jesus as Lord, nothing can stand against you.


We all want change, we want transformation, we want Provision, Protection and Providence in our lives.

We’re no different than anyone else in Jesus’s day.

But like those who only hear but don’t listen,

those who haven’t fully opened their hearts to Christ,

those who only say who Jesus is, but only come halfway….

they — and we — cannot fully understand Provision, Protection and Providence.

Providence — God’s guidance in our lives…

They — and we — might know the symbolic meaning of their names, but they — and we — will never understand how Jesus can transform those names from symbolic to concrete.

They — and we — cannot be used to build God’s kingdom!

Peter wasn’t ready before Jesus’s question to him and the disciples in Caesarea Philippi.

All the miracles, the feeding of 5,000, the healing of the sick, the walking on water…

Those events were the prelude to Peter’s faith.

Peter and the disciples had to take what they were hearing and begin listening with their hearts to God.

Praying, meditating: “God, what does all this mean?”

“God, who is Jesus to me!”

And finally, the revelation.

“Jesus is Lord!”

They were listening…

That revelation must come to each of us, too.

We can hear everything I preach here in church and what every preacher and parent and Sunday school teacher and witness has taught us through our lives…

…but unless we take what we’ve have heard and listen to God — in prayer, in our daily Scripture reading, and in our very own witness — Jesus can only be defined in other people’s terms, and not God’s for our own lives.

We have to take that time to listen to God.


Peter listened to God.

Jesus recognized that.

Matthew illustrates this for us here today.

The last thing Jesus tells the disciples: Verse 20:

“Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”

Why not tell the world Jesus is Messiah?

Does that bother anybody?

It used to bother me. I feel like I would have wanted to proclaim the messiah from every mountaintop!

But I think by now you all might already know.

And part of that answer is what we’ve been discussing.

It’s in the difference between hearing and listening.

But with that comes the fact that the people just aren’t ready for the Messiah to be revealed.

They haven’t seen enough to begin searching — to begin listening — to understand that revelation.

That will come in time.

Because Jesus isn’t ready to die yet.

There was still too much of his ministry left.

And Jesus and the disciples surely would have been killed and not have been able to finish this important part of the ministry yet.

That time would come, as we know.

But not yet.


Jesus tells Peter that Peter is blessed.

It’s not just an observation; Jesus is actually blessing Peter after Peter’s confession.

Peter worked very hard to get to that confession.

Jesus rewards Peter with the blessing that Peter will be the rock on which the church will be built.

A tremendous blessing — and responsibility.

Like Peter, we all have the opportunity to become foundations, too.

And all of us, in a sense, are also being fortified and strengthened so that we, too, can be Rocks for Christ’s church.

It takes work, but it’s not hard.

Jesus’s burden is light, and God’s wish is to reveal this to is so that we can be strengthened and continue Jesus’s ministry here in this life.

That is our goal.

Listen and confess that Jesus is Lord.

We listen, we confess, we receive the blessing, and we are transformed, and the world is transformed.

That is the formula to be able to share the love of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Jesus celebrates Peter’s confession because Jesus knows the transformation is happening.

And when we proclaim Jesus as Lord because we are listening, God celebrates and delights in us, God’s children, too!

One last thing?

Jesus gives us the keys to heaven, doesn’t he?

Verse 19 tells us this: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” he tells Peter.

We don’t have to wait for someone else to open the doors to heaven to us; we are given the keys.

Heaven is open to you now — not just after our lives are completed here on earth, but here on earth as well.

That’s what kingdom-building is all about.

And that’s what God wants from us.

That’s what God blesses us with.

When we listen, then proclaim Jesus as our savior.

And when we can proclaim Jesus as our savior, then we can begin being strong foundations upon which Jesus will build his church.

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